Venice, Dowager Queen of The Adriatic (2005)

Venice, Dowager Queen of The Adriatic (2005)

When was the last time you were in a city without road traffic? Not encountering a single car, bus or truck is perhaps the most appealing aspect of Venice for the jaded city-dweller hoping for a getaway from petrol fumes for a few days. That is what drew me to Venice more than its famed gondolas, fabled bridges and quaint alleyways. Yet if you come here hoping to savour the tranquility of a traffic-free modern-day marvel, you would be disappointed.

The Grand Canal, Venice’s arterial waterway, is clogged with river traffic, which is unregulated by traffic lights or policemen. Impatient boatmen honk their foghorns and add to the din caused by polluting diesel-run motorboats. The embankments are chock-a-block with tourists who occupy virtually every inch of free space. Cyclists and occasional motorcyclists weave deftly, if a bit parlously, through the pedestrian crowds on the bumpy and narrow embankments.

The city has the unmistakable appearance of decay – decrepit and sinking. Fog and fumes give it a sepia shroud. Yet this ageing Queen of the Adriatic is enchanting. With 116 islands, 150 canals and 409 bridges, this city is an intricate maze. Some of the most unexpected architectural delights are to be found as you lose yourself on your walks. Ebony gondolas as graceful as black swans bobbing up the narrow canals, their oarsmen frequently ducking the low-arched bridges, box windows overhanging with rainbow blossoms, the aroma of fresh cappuccino wafting from the numerous trattorias that encroach the pavements, Venice has a character all its own. No wonder it has evoked so much poetry in men and women down generations and remains the most-visited destination in Italy after Rome.

How did Venice come to be, in the first place? Unlike Amsterdam where roads run along the canals, was Venice built exclusively on water? Whoever thought of building a floating city? Venice was an estuarine swamp until the 6th century A.D. when refugees fleeing the Lombard invaders of northern Italy sought the safety of the cluster of uninhabited islands on the Adriatic coast. For the next two centuries, Venice remained part of the vast Byzantine empire ruled from Constantinople, today’s Istanbul.

Eventually, by the 9th century A.D., Venice evolved into a city-state along with Genoa, Pisa and Amalfi. It was ruled by a Doge, derived from the Latin dux and the English duke, who was elected by an aristocratic committee chosen by the Great Council. Being at the head of the Adriatic, Venice enjoyed a strategic location that gradually led to its domination of the neighbouring regions. Eventually, Venice even went on to become an imperial power when the Fourth Crusade managed to conquer even Constantinople, signalling the end of the Byzantine empire in 1453. It was left to Napoleon Bonaparte to conquer Venice in 1797 and integrate it with the Hapsburg empire until it was finally rescued and unified with Italy by Garibaldi.

If in Italy all roads lead to Rome, in Venice all canals and alleyways lead to St. Mark’s Square (also known as Piazza San Marco), once referred to as the `drawing room of Europe’. Built in the 12th century in front of the Basilica of St. Mark, it was subsequently renovated for a meeting between Pope Alexander III and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. The floor is paved with patterned tiles all of which seem to point to the Basilica. I learn that this square is the lowest point in Venice and the first one to be overrun with waters when flooding occurs.

Bounded at right angles by the Palazzo Ducale (Doges’ Palace), St. Mark’s Square is the most photographed site in Venice. If in the past the Venetian army assembled here before launching on its various conquests in the Adriatic, today there is a resident army of pigeons.

There is a serpentine queue for purchasing tickets that would allow entry into the Palazzo Ducale. The heat is relentless. On this journey I am not alone, but with four members of my family, two of them young children. We decide not to go inside, but just lounge around playing with the pigeons. Later I learn we could have purchased entry tickets to many of these monuments through the Internet.

St. Mark’s Basilica dominates the fourth side of the Piazza. Its over-ornate and guilded arches and vaults are in contrast to the quiet grandeur of other European churches. The Basilica was built in A.D. 828 to house the mortal remains of St. Mark, Venice’s patron-saint, smuggled from Alexandria. Inside, the Pala d’Oro (gold altar screen) is studded with precious gems and inlaid with gold. Icons of Archangel Michael, chalices, bowls and candelabras glitter. The Byzantine influence is writ large on all exhibits in this church.

Venice appears to be a bundle of contradictions. In a predominantly religion-dominated era of the Renaissance and the Reformation, Venice remained agnostic, although most of its citizens were Catholics. Not a single person was executed for heresy in Venice when elsewhere in Europe people who questioned the Catholic Church were being burnt at the stake. Naturally, Venice never managed to endear itself to the papacy. In a world dominated by monarchies, Venice chose to remain republic. The chief executive, the Doge, was elected, but usually held office for life. Private and church property was tied to military service and war itself was regarded as a continuation of commerce by other means.

As a result, Venice produced many mercenaries. Now all that Venice produces is Murano glass – deeply coloured, embossed, engraved and richly decorated glassware. Venice no longer needs to send its citizens to fight in faraway lands and bring back wealth and fortune. They have opened stalls to cater to the surging tourist population.

Venice has the dubious distinction of being the first European city to assign a ghetto exclusively for Jews. In the early 16th century, the Doge’s council decided that Jews could remain in Venice but would be confined to Ghetto Nuova, a small dirty island from which the word ghetto takes its connotation. Jews were allowed to roam freely during the day, but were confined to the ghetto by night. Elaborate and complex banking laws ensured that they did not charge usurious rates of interest. I wonder whether Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice had something to do with the Venetian perception of Jewish character.

Marco Polo is perhaps Venice’s best-known citizen. His wanderlust took him all the way from Venice to China, to the court of Kublai Khan in A.D. 1266 , blazing a trail that has since come to be known as the Silk Route. He stayed at Kublai Khan’s court for 17 years and eventually set sail for home. He reached home in the winter of 1295.

Venice was also a favourite haunt of many writers and poets, including Byron and Shelley. Nobody can be indifferent to Venice. If Byron found Venice decaying almost two hundred years ago, Shelley found it invigorating. This is what Shelley had to say about Venice in his letter to a friend:

“Venice is a wonderfully fine city. The approach to it over the laguna, with its domes and turrets glittering in a long line over the blue waves, is one of the finest architectural delusions in the world. It seems to have – and literally it has – its foundations in the sea. The silent streets are paved with water, and you hear nothing but the dashing of the oars, and the occasional cries of the gondolieri…. The gondolas themselves are things of a most romantic and picturesque appearance; I can only compare them to moths of which a coffin might have been the chrysalis. They are hung with black, and painted black, and carpeted with grey; they curl at the prow and stern, and at the former there is a nondescript beak of shining steel, which glitters at the end of its long black mass.”

Coffin or not, there is no dearth of tourists wanting to take a gondola ride, although it is insanely expensive. Today I spy a huge party of Italians, all dressed in black suits, inaugurating their gondola ride by uncorking a bottle of champagne and raucously singing and swaying even as the gondoliers weave their way through the numerous canals.

The most lavish tributes to Venice were paid by Henry James in La Repubblica Serenissima – The Serene Republic. “Dear old Venice has lost her complexion, her figure, her self-respect; and yet, with it all, so puzzlingly, not lost a shred of her distinction.”

The Grand Canal dominates the city’s waterfront, snaking its way for 3.5 kilometres. It is Venice’s own version of the European boulevard. All the fashionable hotels are located here. There is a ferry service that runs up and down, scooping and disgorging people at various points on the banks of the canal. Both banks sport numerous palaces, churches and buildings with distinctive architecture. The Ponte dell’ Academia is one of the three main bridges that span Grand Canal. It takes its name from the Accademia di Belle Arti (Academy of Fine Art). The Galleria Accademia houses such treasures by Bellini, Tintoretto, Canaletto and Titian. East of the Accademia is the Ponte di Rialto, romanticised in films and literature. It connects the two segments of the Rialto market that hawk over-priced touristy items.

But Ponte di Rialto offers a glimpse of Santa Maria della Salute which dominates the skyline. Salute was built in 1630 by Doge Nicolo Contarini to appease God in the hope of arresting the bubonic plague, which, for the second time in 50 years, had descended upon Venice. Despite its professed agnosticism, Venice is home to an array of splendid and ornate churches that dot the banks of the canals.

In the 18th century, Venice was also home to the legendary Casanova, who, despite his fabled decadence, managed to translate Homer’s Iliad into Italian verse, wrote a stinging commentary on Voltaire and even published a monthly magazine. In Venice, Casanova is something of an institution and there are several walking tours that promise to walk you through Casanova’s life and times, provided you have deep enough pockets.

The narrow embankments are all but cordoned off by trattorias that pack them with colourful plastic chairs and awnings to shield their customers from the merciless Italian sun. Whatever little space is left is taken up by hawkers selling trinkets and masks. But the alleyways are interesting places to pick up bargains on curios, antiques, or jewellery, or if one is broke like me, to just browse around.

And if you like your ravioli, pizza, pasta, lasagna or spaghetti drowned in mountains of cheese, Venice is the place to be. You can wash it down with smooth Tuscan wine. As compelling for the fastidious connoisseur of art and architecture as for the average tourist, Venice has something for everyone.

(Published in Frontline dated March 11, 2006)

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